Conservatives Malign Mainstream Media as a Propaganda Tactic

Conservatives have spent decades falsely claiming the mainstream media has a liberal bias by lumping independent mainstream media organizations in the same category as partisan ones and labeling any media that isn’t overtly conservative as partisan against them. 

The irony of the success of this trope is that, contrary to popular belief, the opposite is true: instead of mainstream media having a liberal media bias, they favor conservatives and the Republican Party.

Why So Many People Falsely Believe There is a Liberal Media Bias

You only use 10 percent of your brain. You should wait an hour after eating before taking a dip in the pool. You’ll get arthritis if you crack your knuckles. Eating carrots will improve your eyesight. You’ll catch a cold if you go outside with wet hair.

These sayings are widely accepted as fact by a large number of people. Unfortunately, none of them are true. How is it that so many people believe certain things to be true even when they aren’t? 

Psychology, marketing and political science research has shown repeating claims -- whether true or not -- increases the chances certain falsehoods are believed. This phenomena is called the illusory truth effect. The psychology behind the illusory truth effect is straightforward: humans react to repetition, so hearing something repeatedly, regardless of its truthfulness, will lead many people to eventually believe it. 

Oftentimes the ramifications are harmless, as evidenced in the countless old wives’ tales passed down throughout generations, but other times the ramifications have a profound and lasting negative impact. This is perhaps most evident in how the conservative media has weaponized the illusory truth effect to their benefit.

Republicans have become masters at devising misleading or outright false accusations about the mainstream media and then repeating those misleading or outright false accusations over and over again until a large number of people inherently accept them as fact. The fact that their claim of an inherently liberal media bias against conservatives isn’t true doesn’t matter much because their successful deployment of the illusory truth effect has already convinced many people that there is a liberal media bias. 

Discrediting Competitors Riles Up Your Audience & Keeps Them Loyal

Conservatives claim there’s a “liberal media” bias because they want to perpetually rile up their audience in an effort to keep them loyal. 

After conservatives convince someone to go to their preferred outlet they need to figure out a way to keep them coming back. In order to do that, conservative media outlets repeat over and over that only they can be trusted. They do this not only by criticizing overtly liberal and left-leaning outlets, but also by conflating liberal and mainstream media as being one and the same and asserting neither can be trusted. To many conservatives, mainstream media outlets aren’t actually mainstream at all, but intrinsically liberal. 

No media outlet has been more successful at this tactic than Fox News. Their slogan “Most Watched. Most Trusted.” glosses over the fact that the reason they are most watched is because they have waged a years long propaganda campaign to discredit any media organization that isn’t conservative. 

It’s a classic real-world example of “divide and conquer.” Label all competitors as liberal and convince a large majority of conservatives that the only news they can trust is from like-minded sources. 

Furthermore, conservatives attempt to discredit mainstream media sources by invoking anger and riling up their base, giving them a sense of victimization and anger that the “liberal media” is against them. This victimization and anger inspires their audience to tune in more often and for longer periods of time as their lives and livelihoods depend on what they read and hear from conservative media. It’s a vicious circle that only escalates as conservative outrage intensifies. 

All of this manufactured outrage and demonization of media outlets that aren’t overtly conservative makes a lot of sense if you consider the long game conservatives have been playing:  demonize media that isn’t overtly conservative, ignore or whitewash stories that make conservatives look bad, embellish or outright lie about things that put Democrats and liberals in a bad light, and accuse any media outlet who criticizes or fact checks them as being part of the “liberal media.”

Burgeoning Conservative Extremism Not Matched by Liberals

Both political parties used to be fairly moderate for decades, but that all began to change with the rise of Reagan in the 80’s and Newt Gingrich in the early 90’s. Cross-aisle negotiations quickly became more and more rare and obtaining power for power’s sake became the name of the game in Republican circles. 

This growing divide in the political parties did not play out equally. While Republicans drifted further and further to the right, the Democratic Party largely kept to the center and center-left. The more Republicans went to the right, the more Democrats dug in on moderation. And the issues Democrats did move more to the left on had to do with their changing attitudes concerning civil and human rights, which are neither extreme nor dangerous. 

On the other hand, conservatives have moved far to the right on cultural and social issues ranging from immigration to women’s right to an aversion of religions that don’t adhere to traditional Judeo-Christian values and traditions. 

Due to this ever widening extremism gap between the two major political parties, it makes logical sense that conservatives will do and say more extreme things that warrant coverage by the mainstream media than their liberal counterparts. However, that doesn’t mean mainstream media ignores controversies involving Democrats, because they certainly don’t.  

Liberal Media Bias Claims are Part of a Systemic Pattern of Indoctrination

Conservative media outlets decry mainstream media, with many repeating false claims which insulate their audience from more rational and factual outside sources. They work hard to convince their audience that only they can be trusted and that any other mainstream source of news is biased against them. 

Additionally, these same outlets provide a platform where conservative hosts can interview conservative guests in a relationship that benefits each side. Republican politicians want to win elections, so they go on conservative television for softball interviews and fawning coverage and conservative media gets higher ratings by bringing on big name Republicans. 

This symbiotic relationship between conservative media and republicans creates a right-wing media “echochamber” where people who tune in to conservative outlets hear what they want to hear without concern of being exposed to many -- or any -- opposing viewpoints. 

This systemic pattern of indoctrination has the potential to breed radicalization in some viewers, which can and has led to real-world consequences like the January 6th insurrection and a slew of right-wing domestic terroristic attacks in recent years.

Legitimate Media Criticism of Conservatives is Dismissed as Biased or Worse

Conservatives constantly makes false claims of liberal media bias so they can downplay, discredit or outright dismiss unfavorable news reports that put them in a bad spotlight. 

If an offense is so bad that they must address it they will try to deflect the criticism by attacking the mainstream media and falsely claiming they wouldn’t have reported on the offense had it been carried out by a Democrat. 

Donald Trump and his allies deployed this tactic to rebuff legitimate criticism of him or his Administration no matter the severity of the controversy. Critical stories about Trump or anyone close to him were dismissed as Fake News despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, with Trump deploying the term an astounding 2,343 times throughout his tenure. 

Trump not only decried legitimate criticism against him or his Administration as biased or Fake News, but went so far as to label critical mainstream media coverage of him as coming from the “enemy of the people” a staggering 208 times over four years.   

Moreover, Trump’s dismissal of legitimate criticism from the mainstream media led to catastrophic consequences for millions of Americans during his final year in office. As the COVID-19 pandemic grew worse and mainstream media began asking him and his Administration tougher questions about his mismanagement Trump chose to attack the mainstream media and went so far as labeling the pandemic a  “fake news media conspiracy” one week before the 2020 Presidential election.

His mismanagement of the public health crisis and attempt to deflect blame on to the mainstream media led to the untimely deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, not to mention the millions of Americans who lost their jobs and livelihoods. 

Conservatives Deceptively Brand Mainstream News Outlets as Liberal 

Conservatives have been ruthless in their decades long drive to discredit mainstream media outlets that aren’t overtly conservative. They do this by endlessly accusing mainstream news organizations of having a liberal bias despite being unable to provide any evidence that would prove their charge. If you recall, when a claim is repeated enough times many people will believe it simply because they are used to hearing it.  

Mainstream media outlets like ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many others may appear biased towards liberals to some conservatives because the sheer magnitude of controversies and scandals conservatives commit compared to their liberal counterparts, but it’s not the media’s job to only report on controversies or scandals when it’s convenient for the political party guilty of engaging in them. 

Contrary to what Republicans have been insisting for years, the media does not check to see if a D or an R is next to someones name before reporting on a critical story. If they did consider someones political affiliation and tried to evenly report negative stories then conservatives would benefit greatly from that because the right has become far more extreme than their liberal counterparts in recent years.

The media didn’t report on Donald Trump’s scandals because he had an “R” next to his name; they reported on his scandals because they were newsworthy. That didn’t stop Trump and his enablers from doing everything in their power to change the conversation and attack the media as a mouthpiece of the liberal elite, but it’s important to understand that what they were attempting to in order to change the subject: deny, divert, discredit.  

First, deny a negative story. Second, divert attention away from the subject of the negative story and towards someone or something else. Third, discredit the source of the negative story as being politically biased against you. Republicans do this time and time again, yet they are rarely held to account for it.

The end result  of Republicans branding everything as liberal is that they are able to lie over and over to their audience and any facts or reason that counters what they say can simply be dismissed as coming from the “liberal media.” 

Conservatives Manipulate Fact Checking to Benefit Them

Conservative media has largely succeeded in branding other media as liberal by methodically and unwaveringly misleading their audience with conservative propaganda so regularly that any organization who fact checks them, be it a left-leaning outlet or mainstream one, must be liberal and therefore can be called into question.. 

The role of fact checkers is not a political one. What respected organizations like Politifact, Snopes and The Washington Post Fact Checker do is take a controversial statement made by a prominent politician of either party and conduct research to determine whether the statement is factual or not. Each publication varies in how they rate these statements, but they make it abundantly clear if the statement is factual, halfway factual, or not factual at all.  

This doesn’t sit well with many conservatives, so instead of acknowledging when an untruthful statement was made and moving to correct it they double down and attack the messenger. Or worse, they create their own alternative facts. They also manipulate major social media companies by blatantly violating their fact checking rules by blatantly sharing misinformation and propaganda only to dare these companies to discipline them, which rarely - if ever - happens.

Backstory of Conservative Media’s Ascendance into the Mainstream 

After a decades long propaganda campaign, the trope that mainstream media is inherently liberal is so ingrained in our public discourse today that a broad majority of Americans falsely believe it as a statement of fact, with a whopping 89% of Republicans and 64% of Independents saying they don’t have confidence the media is reporting news “fully, accurately and fairly.”

To better understand how and why conservatives decry the mainstream media today, it helps to look back to the period beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and culminating with the launch of Fox News in 1996. During this period the Republican Party began evolving from a center-right party that would routinely cross the aisle with congressional Democrats to get major pieces of legislation passed to a steadily more extreme party whose sole focus was to derail or outright sabotage the Democratic Party’s legislative agenda. 

Right-wing radio grew exponentially during this time, with generally unknown radio personalities exploding into celebrity seemingly overnight. Far-right shock jocks like Rush Limbaush, Glen Beck, and Sean Hannity, to name a few, began spreading their propaganda far and wide without any worry of an alternative viewpoint being offered. 

These shock jocks spent years, sometimes decades, convincing their audience that mainstream media was against them. According to these personalities, the mainstream media wa intentionally biased against conservatives in favor of liberals. To the likes of Limbaugh and Beck, mainstream reporting on a valid and newsworthy controversy committed by a Republican was proof of a bias against conservatives in general. 

This period of time also happened to coincide with Newt Gingrich’s ascendance in the House Republican conference and culminated in his assuming the speakership in the House of Representatives. Gingrich’s scorched earth style of politics helped transform the House of Representatives, and eventually our entire national political discourse, from genial and deliberative into the cesspool of partisan acrimony it is today. 

All of this demeaning and maligning of the mainstream media over a period of decades has had a real-world impact on how many Americans view the media. The way Americans watched their news also began to shift during this era, culminating with the creation of Fox News in 1996. Conservatives finally had their own cable television network, but the work of convincing the next generation of Americans to get all of their news from them was only beginning.